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TV white spaces to boost broadband, enable the 'internet of things'

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A ten-month trial of 'white spaces' technology has today been completed, potentially providing a boost for wireless broadband in the UK and enabling what is often called the 'internet of things'.

The TV White Spaces Consortium, a group of 17 leading organisations including Sky, the BBC, Arqiva, Microsoft, Virgin Media, Nokia and Samsung, has conducted a variety of trials of the emerging technology in urban and rural areas around Cambridge, England.

White spaces are unused gaps between broadcast television channels, which media regulator Ofcom believes could be used for a range of applications, including expansion of wireless broadband in urban and rural areas, and 'machine to machine' communications.

In the trial, it was found that white spaces could be successfully utilised to "satisfy the rapidly accelerating demand for wireless connectivity in the UK".

The consortium recommended that Ofcom should complete its development of an enabling regulatory framework for licence-exempt access to the spectrum, in order to encourage innovation and deployment in the area, while ensuring there is no harmful interference with existing services.

In a statement, the consortium said: "With the rapid rise of mobile broadband and the desire to enable remote areas to enjoy the benefits of broadband, the need for more efficient spectrum use has never been greater.

"The UK is playing a leading role by exploring the use of licence-exempt access to TV white spaces and developing a model regulatory framework.

"None of this would have been possible without the support of Ofcom - and the constructive and unprecedented collaboration of the companies involved - to progress this groundbreaking mode of spectrum access."

Communications minister Ed Vaizey said that the white space trial has "demonstrated the potential that television white spaces can have for meeting the UK's broadband needs".

"Developments such as this endorse the leadership position that the UK can take in enabling more efficient use of spectrum by opening up an array of opportunities for wireless applications for consumers and businesses alike," said Vaizey.

"I find the idea of using white space devices to deliver broadband to rural communities, or to expand the range and quality of urban Wi-Fi hotspots, exciting.

"This can form a significant contribution to our thinking as we consider how to maximise the value of the spectrum below 1GHz."

The trial analysis revealed that Cambridge has significant white spaces capacity, with 20 white spaces channels corresponding to 160 megahertz in total, of which 13 (104 megahertz) were allowed in the test licence from Ofcom.

These frequencies could be used to help augment existing broadband networks, as well as boost the government's goal of extending broadband access to rural areas.

White spaces could further help create "pop up" Wi-Fi hotspots in urban areas, such as in places where users enjoy "data intensive" services, such as video on-demand services BBC iPlayer and Sky Go, during peak times.

Richard Walker, the head of wireless at The Technology Partnership, one of the organisations involved in the trial, said: "Entire rural communities could be rapidly connected using low-cost hardware operating in unlicensed TV white space.

"And with research suggesting that every 10% increase in broadband penetration could increase GDP by 1%, this gives the potential for well over £10 billion per year for the UK economy."

White spaces could also be used for the emerging 'machine-to-machine communications', as there are estimated to be more than 50 billion connected devices by 2020.

Often referred to as the 'internet of things', this futuristic technology would involve products and devices, such as fridges, automatically connecting and transmitting information.

For example, BT used an application in the trial involving city dustbins alerting the council when they were full and needed emptying.

"TV white spaces are uniquely placed to unlock the potential promised for the Internet of Things," said the consortium.

Nokia and Spectrum Bridge also trialled a location-based service application at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, allowing users to receive prompts on their smartphone informing them of key items while moving around the aircraft museum.

Arqiva, BBC Research and other organisations ran field and lab tests on a range of 'white space' devices to help Ofcom create a regulatory framework for the new technology.

The BBC has also created the first version of a UK-wide database illustrating the typical availability that could be achieved for TV white space devices following the completion of the digital TV switchover later in the year.

Ofcom wants to create a "geolocation database" containing live information on white space frequencies, so as to ensure there is no interference with TV broadcasts or other wireless technologies.

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